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Talk of the Town: When is atomic warfare justified?

It’s been 72 years since atomic bombs fell on Japan’s two industrial cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The month of August is nigh, and once again we are reminded of the pernicious, horrifying events of 1945.

And here’s the perennial question: Was the U.S. justified in using atomic warfare? That question that has never been satisfactory answered.

But first, a remarkable back story, encapsulating the hundreds of stories from other survivors of the atomic blasts.

Tsutomo Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on business that catastrophic day.

He survived the blast but received burns on his upper torso. After spending the night, he returned to his job in Nagasaki, where three days later he survived the second atomic bombing.

Mr. Yamaguchi became the only person officially recognized to have survived both explosions. Despite radiation exposure, he lived to be 93 years of age.

Those who have taken sides in this controversy have made some very reasonable arguments.

Opponents contend that the use of atomic weapons was inhumane and unnecessary, because Japan was about to surrender. The combined death toll in both cities totaled 101,000, but rose precipitously due to the effects of radiation and wounds.

Proponents point out that during the Potsdam Conference, the Japanese refused to consider unconditional surrender and openly stated their intent to “fight to the bitter end.” Their plan was to inflict massive casualties, forcing the U.S. to agree upon unconditional peace with preservation of the imperial institution.

Japan’s stubborn refusal left the U.S. with but one option – an invasion of their homeland.

The military realities of 1945 are often overlooked in judging the necessity to use atomic weapons. Our Secretary of War estimated that a land invasion would cost 1.7 million American causalities, including up to 800,000 deaths; plus, five to 10 million Japanese deaths, most of which would be innocent non-combatants.

Intelligence advised that invading Japan would be resisted not just by their available military, but a fanatically hostile civilian population. Their people, including children, were being armed with nothing more than sharpened bamboo sticks.

Aware of the anticipated casualties, President Truman knew that a protracted land campaign would leave Japan in social, physical and economic ruin. Then, in solitude, he made the risky decision to use atomic weapons that, hopefully, would bring WWII to a close.

The second bomb fell on Aug. 9, and Japan acquiesced the following day by accepting the Potsdam terms of unconditional surrender.

So, were the two bombings justifiable? A tough decision, for sure.

Today, using nuclear, rather than kinetic weapons, would be the most terrifying, destructive means of resolve imaginable.

Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century military theorist, once remarked that war is the continuation of politics, by other means. And if Clausewitz were around today, he would warn that the singular enemy in this nuclear age would be war itself.

Simply put, everyone loses in a nuclear confrontation.

And that’s something North Korea’s belligerent, well-nourished dictator needs to understand.

C.R. Shoemaker is a retired Marine Corps officer and Prescott resident.

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